What Lies Beneath
If I have to fill out one more requisition request, I’m going to scream.” My sister seemed to crumble under the weight of leadership and red tape. She’d thrown herself over the ever-growing stack of forms and letters pleading for help. Her mane fell to cover both of her eyes, and she reminded me briefly of a Vacana.
“Aerlliin, if this be too difficult for thee, might thee need a vacation?” I sat down, and this lowered me to the point of being unable to see her over the desk and paper that seemed to gain another ream, as if by magic.
“I can’t just go, Amulatt. I haven’t even been on a mission myself in over a month because that Rift you and Ance made stuff go wonky all over Neopia.” She must have seen or heard me flinch. “Not that anyone blames you much anymore!”
“That doth not settle mine heart, Liin.” I sighed, which sent a piece of paper flying. It returned to its stack of its own volition, determined to stay in the ‘In’ box. I wondered what charms Liin used to keep things so orderly, as every other desk I’d seen recently was so messy you could barely see the ink blotter. The sheet was marked ‘Urgent,’ and seemed to detail something Doe had done months ago.
“I’m really behind,” she admitted when I gave her a look. “It’s problematic. That was that family heirloom job where she met up with Postumius.” She took it out of the stack and stamped it as being ‘Complete,’ and placed the paper in the box marked ‘Out’ without lifting her head or looking at what she was doing. I took the stamp from her and wheeled her out of her office, with she and the chair both protesting.
“Leave this to me, sister-mine. Dost thee not have a hobby? If not, get one. Please.” She grinned gratefully at me before exiting the chair. “I think Doe is going to Moltara for a couple weeks to help open a few new mining passages. There’s demons involved, she’s pretty hyped. I think I’ll join her,” Liin said as she headed off to her preparation room.
“I have totally got this,” I said to the air, though I didn’t really believe myself. I sat at the desk and began sorting things out.
A week later, I’d gotten the inbox into the outbox and the outbox into the filing cabinets. So at this point I was wondering what the big deal was, and how Liin had gotten so far behind in her paperwork. I was neck deep in filing receipts when I heard someone clear their throat at the doorway.
“Shame Liin isn’t here, we have… a problem.” I looked up to see a vaguely familiar black-red Uni stallion leaning against the wall. “Since you’re just her… sidekick or whatever I’m not sure it’s something you can handle.”
“I am certain I can handle it,” I said tersely. “Thee mercenary types certainly do not like a change in management, even if it is temporary.” With that, I sent off the last pay packet for the day via Weewoo to some Draik we never saw, but knew he was at least part of the company.
“Aren’t YOU a mercenary, Amulatt?” the young Uni said with a chuckle. I couldn’t remember if this was Kraahki or Horrhor. Honestly, they’re both really tall and from this angle, all the tall ones look alike, especially when they’re almost the same body color.
“At the moment, I am not. Today, mine vocation art that of a Secretary.” I sat in the chair, getting a better look at the Uni. This one had two horns, like an Ixi, and they curled downward. I remember Liin telling me that this one was Horrhor, and that usually you could tell because he didn’t have feathered feet and possessed a handsome set of bat wings. I looked at his legs, seeing a mass of black fog. “You said there was a problem?”
“Is. As in, it’s ongoing,” Horrhor said. “It’s nothing on your end. We actually appear to be working at full capacity for the first time in a few months.” This is where his thoughts appeared to linger, and he lowered his head to look me in the eyes. His are, for the record, white and featureless. It’s unsettling, perhaps because I’m used to the featureless sort of eyes glowing. “I need a helping hoof with my mission.”
“Thine mission? Thou art not on a mission at the moment.” I pointed towards the inbox, which was currently empty. The only thing at present that had anything filling up was the pay box- it had another sort of charm linked to it that allowed people to pay the company directly. My duty with this object was to remove five percent of the coin that came in and then deliver the rest to the mercenary who completed the job. Most prefer the same magical Neopoint transfer system that the money came in on; others would request a Weewoo deliver it to them, like the Draik in the Haunted Woods. It’s an efficient system, and everyone is happy with it.
“It’s kind of off book.” I gave him a long stare. Aerlliin doesn’t like it when her company members go off book, mostly for insurance reasons. “It’s not dangerous, probably. Just a random dungeon dive for a friend.” I thought for a moment that this was absolutely going to go sour.
“Since the Rift opened, nothing is ‘just a random dungeon dive,’ Horrhor.” I looked at him blankly again. “And even if it were, why wouldst thee need an assist?” I have been at this for far too long to not see red flags. Even a new mercenary would have a hard time missing these ones, though, particularly since they were in neon. I let out a sigh that even Flutter would have envied and got down from my chair. “Please tell me that thou dost not need me for mine height.” I barely come up to his knees.
“It’s definitely not a height thing,” he said with a grimace. “If anything, your size might be problematic.”
The ‘dungeon’ was actually just an open hole in the ground. If I hadn’t been told in advance, I would have assumed this was a natural well. I could hear the water rushing at the perceived bottom of the hole and gave Horrhor a sidelong glance. “Thou art trying to get me killed.”
“I did warn you about your size. Smaller things- or Peophins- get trapped in the undertow and can’t make it back out. This is also an issue because this is my friend’s property and you can’t just have open caverns in the middle of your field.” He hesitated for a moment and lifted his face to the sky, hiding his expression from me. “There’s one more thing. This is new.” He pointed out that there was no erosion on the sides of the well to signify that it had even seen a single rainstorm.
“Oh.” I leaned over, surveying it more thoroughly. The well’s water had a slight glow to it, illuminating the bottom of the pit. “The glowing waters are likely not a good sign, either.” It takes a moment for the glow to click in my head, as I’d previously seen water like this. “This art part of the Wellspring.”
“Yup. The important bit of the Faerie’s lifecycle. It’s not supposed to be leaking like this, so we’re actually going upstream to plug the hole.”
“I am not certain if thou art aware of this, Horrhor, but I am better at ripping holes in magical things than I am repairing them.” This gave him pause, but then he shrugged.
“True enough, but I’m sure it’ll get fixed eventually.” This only made me glare, but I stuck my tongue in my cheek and bit it to prevent him from becoming angered. He is, after all, just about the right size that he could kick me into the sinkhole with very little effort and no one would be the wiser- at least until the paperwork started piling up and pay ceased to go out again. “Alrighty, Amulatt. You ready to try this?”
“Not particularly, but we hath little choice. This art one of those things that will cause issues later, perhaps those we cannot imagine.” The phrase ‘like the Rift’ hung in the air, unsaid but enough to cause tension to rise between us. I decided to get it out of the way. “It art likely caused by the Rift, yes. Please stop looking at me as thou art, thy gaze art unsettling.” I unfurled my wings, rocketing myself into the glowing sinkhole without another word.
Inside, there were vague hoofprints, as though Horrhor had already gone down to get a sense of what, exactly, he was dealing with. The prints were fairly shallow for a Uni his size, and even mine were deeper if I pressed hard enough into the dirt. I looked about the cavern, noting that it seemed natural for the most part. The only unusual bit was the glowing water, which lit up what should have been a pitch black cavern like it was lined with street lamps.
“I hope you’re a strong swimmer,” Horrhor said from behind me. He inclined his head to the point we needed to go. The river met the rock, pouring out from what looked to be a smallish hole in the dirt as though it were a pipe. “Most Peophins are, but this current is fairly strong and you’re not quite tall enough to keep your feet on the ground while water walking.” It was concern, not mockery, that hung in his voice.
“It shall certainly make exiting the cavern simple, then, as downstream is rarely an issue for me,” I said with a smile. “Thou dost worry too much. I am a fairly adept swimmer.” And would rocket out the cavern’s river system like a Peophin ballista bolt if I wasn’t careful, but didn’t bother mentioning that to the Uni. The journey up the river was about as uneventful as we could hope for, and Horrhor impressed me with how long he could hold his breath for. He took in a long, gasping breath once we reached the tear in the Wellspring, however. The water flattened his mane and tail, and he drenched the walls when he shook like a Puppyblew. “I am not certain why thee hast shaken thyself,” I said, a note of humor in my voice. “We art simply going to get wet again.” I let the water cling to my body, dripping water as I walked.
“I’m not used to the water. I really didn’t know Peophins could swim like that, even if you are an aquatic Neopet.” He had struggled keeping his footing against the current. “I should have painted myself Maraquan for this trip.”
“That would require forethought,” I quipped without emotion. I was far too focused on the leak, which poured out thousands of gallons of glowing magical goo into the water table. “Oh, wow.” It came out with such pressure that it was hard to tell what the texture was until it splashed on Horrhor's face. It stuck like a sort of odd glowing jelly on the bridge of his nose, refusing to come off. “I doth hope that do not burn.”
“Nah, it's really cold, though. Have you encountered this before? I think the Caverns under Faerieland glow, too. Is it the same?” He attempted to shake it off as he had the water, but it refused to be removed.
“No. This art far brighter and greener, as though it art different kind of magic. Perhaps stronger.” I used a wing to wipe the goo from his face, feeling a tingle of magic from it that dissipated when I dipped my wing in the water. It was fascinating, but we both knew we couldn't stare and admire the magic. Fyora only knew how it was affecting things downstream already, as this water source likely poured into the sea or a lake of some kind.
“Alright. I know how to seal this, I just need you to stand on the other side of it like you're holding a bag closed.” He motioned how he wanted me to do it, and the magical force seemed to pulsate with the effort of me even making the pantomime. I watched as he used glittering dark magic that arced from both of his downturned horns to the hole in the wall, and the flow of Wellspring goo stemmed to nothing as he zipped it closed. The hole wanted to fight a bit on my end, as though it didn't feel like closing, but a bit more effort on my part had the thing sealed within moments. The headwaters of this particular stream quickly cleared, and the cavern became dark again save for the soft glow my wings emitted.
“This doth not feel like it hath ended,” I said cautiously. I cast a light spell, illuminating the cavern again. He shifted in the stilted light, looking uncomfortable. “We need to go downstream.”
“I was afraid you were gonna say that. But you're right. I took this job to take care of the problem, and that means I should take care of the whole problem.” He groaned before launching himself into the water, vanishing into the dark. I considered, for a moment, that this was rather uncalled for, but jumped in after him.
The entire downstream swim was exhilarating, I must admit. Though Horrhor had jumped in several moments before me, I caught up with him fairly quickly and grabbed him from behind when it was safe to surface again. He let out a great bellow of a shout upon breaching the water, his death-pale eyes opening wide.
“You're kind of a monster,” he said after calming down a little. We stayed abreast of each other in the underground river, watching to ensure neither hit a wall and ducking under again when the river ceased to have air pockets. During the 'air pocket' times, we enjoyed an easy conversation. “Do you often scare the shoes off of people, or is this a new development?”
“I doth like to keep people on their toes,” I said with a small shrug. “It art far easier to do when thou art unpredictable.” My smile fell when the water began glowing again. I snuffed my light spell and dipped under the water to get a better look. When I came back up, I could only think of one thing to say. “Well, muffins.”
“You're starting to sound like Doe,” Horrhor stated. “Is it that bad? Where are we, even?”
“One question at a time, if thee will.” I paused, looking around the area and getting my bearings. I'm fairly good at orientating myself in any of the cardinal directions, and I was overcome with a sudden feeling of dread. “Oh, oh no.” I tried to say that. It came out as a series of squeaky utterances that are unbecoming of an elegant Peophin such as myself.
“Mu, use your big girl words.”
“The caves under Kiko Lake? However long that Wellspring leak has been pouring in, it hath sort of... built up into a minor vortex and art now emptying out into a highly populated area.” I said it in a rush, as though it would make the situation less grave.
“I guess that's better than the Haunted Woods,” he admitted after staring at me for a few minutes of hollow silence. “Only marginally, though.”
“Thankfully here it might only cause kelp and dead corals to animate.” I watched as several of these did just that. “The Haunted Woods would result in thousands of animated trees, which would be devastating.”
“I'm not sure the Kikos swimming in the lake will think it's any different when they're grabbed by a malevolent kelp bed,” Horrhor said bitterly just before he snapped under the water. He hadn't taken in a breath, so I figured he had likely fallen victim to irony. I followed him down, biting through a strand of lake grass that had wrapped itself around his hind leg and freeing him to surface.
“I am to assume you meant, 'like this.'” I said flatly, which caused him to begin laughing from deep within his belly.
“Yeah, exactly like this. Come on, we should probably surface to the top of the lake and warn the Kiko Lake residents out of it for the time being.” He took the surface residents, while I warned those under the water.
I had, unfortunately, been optimistic in how easy it would be to convince people to leave their houses. While some only took a little goading, the oldest Kiko I have ever seen in my entire life stubbornly sat in what was likely an enchanted rocking chair on his front porch.
“I ain't moving,” he said, not following my gaze to the encroaching magic goo. Though it moved slowly, it wasn't slow enough for my taste. “I've lived here for nigh on eighty years, I don't plan on giving it up now. My grandpappy lived here, and his before that-”
“Thine domicile art going to consume thee!” I shouted, suddenly losing all patience with this curmudgeon. “Whilst thee art going on about thine history, an archaic magic creeps ever nearer and will bring life to thine unliving objects. LEAVE. YOUR. HOUSE.” I may or may not have used a deep, Imperial voice on him, but it was enough to kau him into submission. He swam meekly to the surface just as his house uprooted itself and began terrorizing an angry lawn ornament.
“You know, Mu,” Horrhor said in a way I wasn't fond of when we met back up again. “These things probably wouldn't have come to life if you weren't here. Things really just seem to go wrong on the missions you're attending.” I'm sure he meant it to tease me, but I wasn't in the mood to be teased.
“Actually, Aerlliin art usually the one things animate around inexplicably.” I shook the lake water from my mane, letting the sun dry the rest. “That art not currently mine worry, however.”
“Yeah, we've got a lake full of magical constructs wreaking havoc down there.” He grimaced. “I'm not sure that sentence has ever been said before.” I brought up the house eating the Kiko sentence. “We're just full of new utterances today, aren't we?” He sighed, and a pained expression contorted his face. “I don't know what to do.”
“I am not any better at coming up with magical solutions than thou art.” It was a painful admission. “At least thou art able to close things.” I felt a headache of legendary magnitude forming in the back of my head. I closed my eyes, wincing with the pain and the thought of being responsible for pretty much everything bad that was happening at the moment. I groaned as if to let some of the steam out, though Horrhor would later insist it sounded more like a primal growl.
“Aren't you an ancient magical vampire?”
“Experience doth not equal expertise.” We had both sunk to the ground, exhausted, and were staring at the tumultuously glowing lake. “If it did, I would have sealed that stupid Rift by now.”
“I guess few enough people have experience with this sort of magic, anyway, so it's doubtful any experts actually exist.” He paused for a moment to eat a bit of bread one of the townsfolk had given him, and stopped mid bite. “What about the Faeries? They would have to know how to dissipate this sort of magic, since it's theirs, right?”
“The Faeries know very little about the Wellspring and its magic. I hath asked, when I was first introduced to the subject. It art pure life magic, the very blood of the world.” I squinted, watching a pair of houses engage in battle beneath the waves. It seemed that the magic had not been able to permeate the air, so things above the lake were, for the moment, safe. (At least, the glass bottom boats had not yet noticed there were two exhausted, upset equines on the beach.) We heard hoofsteps behind us, and the weight of one set had me on edge.
“Please tell me this isn't Rift related. Or that you didn't do it, sugarcube.” Doe and Aerlliin had come back from Moltara just in time to see me at the end of my rope.
“It's likely Rift related, but she didn't do it,” Horrhor said, not taking his eyes off the lake. “We sealed up the hole the Wellspring was leaking out of, but the magical goo has settled at the bottom of the lake. And animated the houses.”
“Not surprising,” Liin said. “That sort of primordial magic is uncontrollable. It'll settle down on its own eventually, but I doubt the villagers here want to wait a couple decades for their lawn chairs to stop fighting each other.”
“What do we do?” I asked meekly. It came out as another squeak, I'm not ashamed to admit. Liin looked at me as though she were in pain. I was getting tired of this look.
“The Rift has to be sealed. The confluence of arcane energy is too-” she caught Horrhor's flat-faced expression and stopped. “Stuff like this is going to keep happening until it's sealed. Hopefully, sealing it will make everything go back to normal. Until then... I hope the residents of Kiko Lake don't mind sharing their houses.”
We grimly headed home, and it's still unresolved. Hopefully, my next report will conclude with this stupid Rift being closed.